A group of passengers on a cruise ship challenge the world chess champion to a match. At first, they crumble, until they are helped by whispered advice from a stranger in the crowd - a man who will risk everything to win. Stefan Zweig's acclaimed novella Chess is a disturbing, intensely dramatic depiction of obsession and the price of genius.
Hofmiller, an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer stationed at the edge of the empire, is invited to a party at the home of a rich local landowner, a world away from the dreary routine of the barracks. The surroundings are glamorous, wine flows freely, and the exhilarated young Hofmiller asks his host's lovely daughter for a dance, only to discover that sickness has left her painfully crippled. It is a minor blunder that will destroy his life, as pity and guilt gradually implicate him in a well-meaning but tragically wrongheaded plot to restore the unhappy invalid to health.
This biography of one classic author by another is filled with Zweig’s characteristic psychological insights. He portrays the energy and “exuberance of imagination” that produced some two thousand characters in La comédie humaine, as well as the daily details of the coffee-chugging writer’s life, his manic writing schedule, method of correcting proofs, dealing with publishers and reviewers, signing contracts, doing marketing and publicity.
Balzac blends biography and literary history in a highly readable volume that will teach you French cultural history as you laugh out loud.
“[Balzac] is sure to entertain, instruct and charm ... It is a work of art, ... alive with the teeming life of its model ... It is true both to facts and to the more elusive psychological and spiritual truth of a man who ... has remained one of the most mysterious of great creators.” – Henri Peyre, Sterling professor of French Literature, Yale University, The New York Times
For Zweig, “everyone whose nature excels the commonplace, everyone whose impulses are creative, wrestles inevitably with his daemon” which Zweig describes as “the incorporation of that tormenting leaven which impels our being ... towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation and even self-destruction.”
In these essays, Zweig depicts the tragic and sublime lifelong struggle by three great creative minds with their respective daemons.
Mary, the only surviving legitimate child of James V of Scotland, was six days old when her father died and she acceded to the throne. She spent most of her childhood in France while Scotland was ruled by regents, and in 1558, she married the Dauphin of France, Francis. He ascended the French throne as King Francis II in 1559, and Mary briefly became queen consort of France, until his death in December 1560. Widowed, Mary returned to Scotland, arriving in Leith on 19 August 1561. Four years later, she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, but their union was unhappy. In February 1567, his residence was destroyed by an explosion, and Darnley was found murdered in the garden.
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was generally believed to have orchestrated Darnley’s death, but he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567, and the following month he married Mary. Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. On 24 July 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favour of James VI, her one-year-old son by Darnley. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, she fled southwards seeking the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics, including participants in a rebellion known as the Rising of the North. Perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had her confined in various castles and manor houses in the interior of England. After eighteen and a half years in custody, Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth in 1586 and was beheaded the following year.
“The story has all the emotional savor of a crime passionnel; it is adroitly worked up to a climax of violence and calamity, and it subsides as skillfully to an end of tragic pity... With his talent for simple exposition on a large scale, his sense of drama, his ready flow of emotion, his inventiveness in detail of the moments of his character’s life, his resources of metaphor, parallel and illustration, and his rich psychological adornment of human life, Herr Zweig has no difficulty in reducing his material into its essential drama... whatever Mary’s story, and we shall never know, Zweig’s book has every right to be set down as one of the most brilliant guesses at the truth, and it is an amazing piece of virtuosity to plunge her into the blackest of guilt, and then restore her to our sympathy and pity.” — Peter Munro Jack, The New York Times
“Mr. Zweig... is not a historian but... a litterateur practising biography as a branch of letters. The distinction is not derogatory... It... is the clue to the strength and weakness of the book. The litterateur borrows from the craft and exercises some of the liberty of the novelist. He is interested in character and psychology and indulges in imaginative reconstruction more freely than the historian who is forever... haunted by the words, ‘We do not know.’... [Zweig] makes a real person of Mary, a convincing portrait, and there is sympathetic understanding even when he is presenting her as the accomplice of her lover, Bothwell, in the murder of Darnley. Needless to say the style is remarkably easy and readable... [C]riticism would be unjust to the brilliant qualities of Mr. Zweig’s book, and though I hope that all he says will not be taken for gospel truth, I am certain of the pleasure he will give to his readers. There are many descriptive passages to be scored and many sentences that one would give a great deal to have written. The whole book goes with the swing of a novel. The translation is beyond praise.” — J. E. Neale, The Saturday Review
Dostoevsky’s genius, in Zweig’s view, owed a debt to his illness, as Tolstoy’s did to his radiant health. Illness “enabled Dostoevsky to soar upward into a sphere of such concentrated feeling as is rarely experienced by normal men; it permitted him to penetrate into the underworld of the emotions, into the submerged regions of the psyche.”
This essay is one of the best examples of Zweig’s psychologically-informed literary criticism.